Kim Klement / USA TODAY Sports

Gators beat Aggies despite sloppy offense

Another noon game and another sloppy game for the Florida Gators who found a way to pull out their sixth win in a row and stay atop the leader board in the SEC. Florida (20-5, 10-2 SEC) pulled away in the last few minutes for a 71-62 win over Texas A&M (13-11, 5-7) in front of 10,732 at the Exactech Arena in Gainesville.

Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE Florida started off the game very sloppy on the offensive end. Shooting 39% in the first half, the Gators turned the ball over nine times in the first stanza as well. Lazy and ill-advised passes saw the Aggies cut a 12 point deficit to just two at half time where the Gators led 29-27.

Florida senior forward Justin Leon led all scorers with 18 points and made seven of the Gators first nine points of the game, but cooled off and didn’t score for the remaining 16:50 of the first half. He then opened the scoring for the Gators in the second half with a made three less than a minute into the half, but the entire Gator team went cold again, going almost four and a half minutes without scoring and giving up the lead 35-32.

Credit the long Aggie’s defense for their defensive presence and their changing defense.

“They do a good job of that as well,” White said of Texas A&M constantly changing it up. “I thought we were in a decent rhythm throughout the game, but when you are wondering what they are going to be in, it slows your aggression, it slows your initial push. There are sometimes I hold the guys up wondering what they are going to be in. When you come out of a timeout prepared for one thing and they throw something else at you… we saw a bunch of different looks and didn’t handle it well the last couple of minutes. We didn’t finish the game with great decision making.

The Aggies largest lead would come at 12:23 left in the game with a 40-36 score before Florida head coach Mike White calmed his players down during a timeout and with the offense really struggling, White stressed to his team to have a better defensive mentality which would lead to better offense.

“It was more about defense,” he said about the timeout and adjustments that led to a 17-5 run and most of the eventual cushion they would finish the game with. “As bad as we were offensively, I saw a little bit of an energy drop and lack of communication on the defensive end. The message was ‘let’s continue to play defense at the highest possible level and we’ll fall into a couple of turnovers, we’ll fall into a couple of long rebounds, and get us out in transition’.

“Other than that offensively, ‘Hey guys, shots are going to fall. Keep taking shots you’re going to take. We’re going to get ours offensively’. We were going to win the game with some stops.

The Gators saw struggles from a couple of starters in junior forward Devin Robinson (4 pts., 3 reb.) and senior guard Kasey Hill (3 pts., 3 asst., 5 TO). But, Leon was able to add is 18 to go with his five rebounds on the day.

Leon is a joy to watch as he is always hustling on the court.

“This was the second or third game where if Justin doesn’t sprint into a couple of threes, we don’t win,” White said. “He’s in the gym as much as anybody we have. He’s a machine, and also plays like it. It’s like clockwork. Every day when practice is over, we all have routines, Justin’s routine is he gets off a ton of shots. He’s not leaving the gym until he has a certain amount of makes.

“He’s turned himself into a shooter. This is a guy that was a center in high school before he went off to college.”

Senior transfer Canyon Barry also stepped up again from the bench, In just 21 minutes, Barry sparked the Gators in their big run and hit for 12 points while also setting the Gator consecutive free throw mark at 39 in a row with his four makes on the day.

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Aggie’s coach Billy Kennedy likes the makeup of the Florida team and what Barry brings to the table.

“They’re older, and having Barry coming off the bench with his poise and making free throws. He’s a difference-maker.”

White understands what it is about Barry.

“Just confidence,” White said about his senior swing man. “When he gets a shot or he gets fouled, guys just kind of exhale. You feel, ‘here comes Canyon’. Lifts us up.

“We only talk about scoring, but he’s good in all areas. At times he is a really dangerous scorer as he was today, he really changed the game.  He’s a pleasure to coach, he’s going to be very valuable to this team. I’m obviously very thankful he chose Florida.

“He’s a really quick thinker. A lot of guys are smart, but they don’t think that quickly. He possesses both.  One of the reasons it allows him to draw fouls, he’s a very quick thinker and has a quick burst to draw the contact.

“I didn’t see him as a recruit, but this year that I’ve had him, he’s a very confident guy, he doesn’t ride the rollercoaster like some do. He has the ability to stay calm whether he makes it or not.”

Junior center John Egbunu tallied a double-double with his 11 points and 10 rebounds. He had a tough going with the big bodies that the Aggies played inside all game.

“I thought he made good solid decisions,” White said of Egbunu. “He didn’t force the issue. I thought he was the player of the game for us, we gave him a game ball and he only took five shots. That’s a real positive. If he’s got 12 great shots, I want him to take 12. It might be two shots. He took good ones and let it come to him. He was a presence in there.”

The Gators learned that the NCAA computer polls rank them 11th in the country right now, an early look at what the NCAA committee will use to help them select the NCAA Tournament field in March. A deep bench and different players stepping up have helped guide the gators to six straight wins and where they stand at the moment in the rankings.

They saw that tonight with the play of Egbunu and Barry when others needed the help.

“Our depth has always seemed to step up when we need it,” White said. “We have had pretty good timing, where you really need Keith Stone to hit two or three and he steps up. Canyon steps up does it a bunch, Kevarrius Hayes we need to step up. Now, Kevarrius didn’t have a good night and John Egbunu steps up with his big game. We’ve been a pretty fortunate team with the timing.”

In the end, it was another win against an overall quality opponent and something the Gators can glean from.

“We’ll take it,” White said. “You learn from every game. You learn positively and you learn negatively. When you learn some things about yourself that you didn’t do so well and you win against a really solid team, that’s a positive in and of itself.”

 

UP NEXT: The Gators travel to Auburn Tuesday night at 7 p.m. (EST) and the game will be televised live on SEC NETWORK.

 


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